Village Gems (Northern New England Driving Tour)
New Hampshire, Maine & Vermont
New England is full of cities, towns and villages well worth exploring. And, just like the states of the region, each has its own character. Here are just a few choices for special New England town destinations.
(Trip ideas and itineraries are meant as suggestions only. They are intended as ideas and to highlight all there is to see and do in New England.)
- Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Strawbery Banke
One of America’s oldest cities, founded in 1623. Tour the historic district, with its 18th and 19th century homes, and Strawbery Banke, the award-winning museum that shows how locals lived from 1695 to the 1940s. Then, take in the fine restaurants, shops, theaters and concerts. Modern life in a centuries-old setting: this is what New England is all about.
- Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College
A classic New England college town. At Bowdoin College, the Arctic Museum focuses on the 1909 North Pole expedition of alumnus Robert Peary. In First Parish Church, Harriet Beecher Stowe was sitting in pew 23 when she decided to write her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851).
- Belfast, Maine: Art lover's delight
The oldest shoe shop in the country, a vintage cinema and Victorian houses: Belfast is nicely old-fashioned. Once a center of shipbuilding, you can still see sailboats in the harbor and tugs in Penobscot Bay. Recently voted one of the country’s top small art destinations, thanks to its numerous galleries.
- Castine, Maine: Postcard perfect
This village at the tip of a peninsula has 19th century homes, lovingly-tended gardens, a lighthouse and lots of boats. Life was not always idyllic; the French, Dutch and British took turns to rule and in the War of 1812, the Redcoats were (temporarily) in charge.
- Farmington, Maine: Outdoor pleasures
In Maine’s western mountains, Farmington is a good base for skiing, hiking, fishing, canoeing and whitewater rafting. A friendly, down-home sort of place, this was the birthplace of opera singer Lillian Nordica (née Norton), who took Europe by storm in the 19th century. The Nordica Memorial Homestead tells the story.
- Littleton, New Hampshire: White Mountain setting
One of the Top Ten Small Towns of America, picturesque Littleton is in the White Mountains, but only a few miles from the Connecticut River. Ever since a grist mill (now restored) and a store opened 200 years ago, this has been a hive of enterprise. Thayer’s Inn has been welcoming guests since 1850.
- St. Johnsbury, Vermont: Northeast Kingdom
'St. J' is the busy gateway to the rugged Northeast Kingdom, with biking, hiking, boating and winter sports. Three rivers converge here, as did the railroads that shipped out granite and lumber. As for culture, must-sees include the Athenaeum (1873), with its art gallery and the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (1889).
- Montpelier, Vermont: Smallest state capital
Small really is beautiful when it comes to America’s smallest state capital. Tour the gold-domed statehouse, delve into Vermont’s past in the Historical Society Museum, then discover half a dozen covered bridges just outside town. Under the label 'Central Vermont,' Montpelier and the surrounding county are on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Middlebury, Vermont: College town
On the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest and 20 miles from Lake Champlain, Middlebury is charming. There are historic buildings, small museums and tempting shops. Students at Middlebury College, founded in 1800, add extra buzz. In the college quad, the statue of a dog catching a pie plate reinforces the student claim to have invented the game of Frisbee tossing in 1938.
- Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College
The home of highly-regarded Dartmouth College, Hanover is a cultural hotspot. It offers plenty of music and drama, while the Hood Museum of Art exemplifies the quality of museums found throughout New England. Antiques stores, craft galleries and offbeat shops abound, while the great outdoors is right on the doorstep.
- Bellows Falls, Vermont: Classic mill town
Built beside the Connecticut River’s steepest falls, this is a prime example of a New England mill town. The brick buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries still house businesses, just as the 1802 canal is still in use. Tour the art and crafts studios; peer at ancient Native American carvings; and ride the Green Mountain Flyer scenic railroad.
- Peterborough, New Hampshire: Small town America
The inspiration for Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play that celebrates small town America, Peterborough enjoys a thriving arts community. Set on a river and surrounded by wooded hills, it is only a few miles from Mount Monadnock. The hike up to the 3,166-foot summit is easy, the views spectacular: on a clear day, you can see Boston.
See also: Village Gems (Southern New England Tour)